Photo via Eric Hartline - USA TODAY Sports

Photo via Eric Hartline - USA TODAY Sports

Flyers Forward Lines 2017-18: Embarrassment of Riches

The Flyers made a big splash at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. Trading wing Brayden Schenn to the St. Louis Blues for depth center Jori Lehtera and 2 – 1st Rounders. The move speaks about Ron Hextall’s vision for the Philadelphia Flyers; something along the lines of ‘the future is now’ seems apt.

Now, wait a second, ‘The Future is Now’? How does dealing away a younger player and a potential 30 goals for around 10 goals (Lehtera contribution) and draft picks help the current line-up? That sounds more like, ‘the future is tomorrow’.

Well.. yes.. that too! Both! It’s my belief that Hextall thinks there are younger players knocking on the door that might replace Schenn’s offense immediately. Schenn was deemed expendable because winning the draft lottery, and adding a high quality pick like Nolan Patrick has greatly accelerated the Flyers forward prospect pool.

On the subject of Free Agent acquisitions, Hextall’s said that he’s done. Basically cementing the idea that the management team isn’t going to “box out” young players by handing jobs to NHL veterans. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Hextall to force coach Dave Hakstol’s hand in using more inexperienced players in BIG roles.

It’s going to be a very exciting year, win or lose.

Explanation

With that, here’s what I came away with from a deep dive into some advanced stats from this past season (over a couple of seasons for Laughton/Leier). Just because it was a deep dive for me, doesn’t mean it has to be for you. So I’ve excluded the numbers and just gone with the simple idea that blue = good and red = bad. The aim is not to bombard you readers with numbers, and instead give you guys something you can digest easily. Hope you enjoy!

If you need help with Stat Abbreviations I suggest visiting stats.hockeyanalysis or puckalytics!

Line 1

Jordan Weal – Claude Giroux – Wayne Simmonds

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

I was preparing to write in Konecny or even Patrick as 1LW before Weal was re-signed. I, for one, am really happy that Jordan is back with the team because losing him would have hurt. Not because he’s been an integral cog in the Philadelphia machine, but because he’s an offensively gifted player who’s smack-dab in the midst of his prime.

In his rather dynamic debut he had great team metrics, and his individual stats were off the charts. He rode a high shooting percentage (18%) so expect regression there. He also had no special teams time which (given some PP time) should even that regression out.

Weal improved the statistics of every player he played more than 30 minutes with in his 23 game sample. That includes massive improvements in even strength goal share compared to season averages for Giroux (+20.5%) and Simmonds (+13.6%). It’s a no-brainer that Jordan should get a crack at being a full-time 1st liner.

Despite having offensively slanted zone starts, Captain Claude Giroux, and Assistant Wayne Simmonds had an absolute mess of a season at 5v5 in 2016-17. Simmonds was a bit better at generating shots and attempts, but due to his rambunctious play he also took a boat-load of penalties. It’s seems reasonable to assume these two can turn the tide and get back to 50% in goals for/against considering they’d been excellent together the year before. Both Giroux and Simmonds essentially had 3rd/4th line numbers that were boosted by strong powerplay minutes.

Traded Away: Speaking of strong PP minutes, Brayden Schenn will be tough to replace in that regard. The thing is, that’s the only thing that Schenn provided last season. He was just as poor at even strength as Giroux and Simmonds, but even worse individually. He had 4 goals at 5v5! 4! That’s as many as Lyubimov, Cousins, and Bellemare! A big part of that was his inability to get shots on goal. He was the worst Flyers regular in shots per 60 minutes played last year.

Line 2

Travis Konecny – Sean Couturier – Jakub Voracek

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Disclaimer: this would be Line 2 based on ice time.. a large chunk of which would be defensive or two-way usage.

Sean Couturier was the best Flyers forward at Even Strength last season despite the fact that he had the toughest zone starts of any forward. In fact, if we go back 3 seasons (cumulative) Couturier has been a +21 in terms of goals for/against at Even Strength, first among Flyers forwards (Schenn was second at +9). Giving Couturier some more offensive time has been on my list of obvious Flyers improvements for years now. GIVE HIM A CHANCE!

Jake Voracek needs to bounce back. He was by far the worst Flyer forward at 5v5 last season. Worse than Bellemare and Vandevelde.. which is saying a lot. The two linemates that consistently upped his offensive numbers were Konecny and Couturier. His defensive numbers were still horrid with them, but getting his offense kick-started would at least be a starting point.

Konecny was a very volatile player this past season; the Flyers only scored more per minute with Couturier and only allowed more with Voracek on the ice. So looking at this line.. it might be kind of insane to put it together! Fire-wagon-hockey!

Expansion Draft: Vegas selecting Bellemare wasn’t really on anyone’s radar at the Expansion Draft. Signing Weal, or drafting Raffl/Read seemed like more obvious moves. But the Golden Knights clearly drafted Pierre based on his presence. He’s a good dude, and an expansion team especially needs good dudes to help further the brand. From a business point of view the pick seems sensible.

From a hockey point of view Bellemare is riding a high because of his strong showings for Team France and Team Europe internationally. His advanced stats in Philadelphia seem to tell us that he can’t really do enough to push the needle. He’s a checking center, who’s easily replaceable. Taking him away from coach Hakstol will probably be a good thing because he was overused. PEB received the 8th most even strength ice time of any forward, was among the worst offensive players in the entire league, and was also the worst penalty killer for the Flyers last year.

Line 3

Nolan Patrick – Valtteri Filppula – Dale Weise

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Disclaimer: this would be Line 3 based on ice time, but it would essentially be Line 2 based on offensive opportunities.

Filppula was brought in last year as a cap-dump from Tampa Bay, he was expendable. His numbers as a whole seem to show he still has some offensive ability to give, but he may be a liability defensively. That’s something the Flyers will have to work around, and giving this line slanted offensive starts makes a lot of sense.

Weise had a tough time scoring last year. Don’t get too down on him though. He was still a positive in goals for/against ratio at Even Strength. His ratio was actually the best among Flyers regulars! So he proved that even if he’s not scoring he can contribute solid enough two-way play to limit opponent offense. In my mind Weise is a safety net just in case Patrick and Filppula get a bit too aggressive offensively.

The debate about whether or not Nolan Patrick should move to a wing will rage on throughout this season. I’m a firm believer that Patrick can be used on the wing, and step in as a secondary center if Filppula is tossed from face-offs. This will give Valtteri the chance to be extra aggressive on draws, and give Patrick a taste of what being a NHL center is like without throwing him to the wolves. He should be eased into a center role slowly. Plus there will inevitably be injuries, etc. that will push Nolan into the middle throughout the season.

Spare parts: Cousins will have a good opportunity in Arizona to make a real difference. He’s been a decent 3rd/4th liner to Philadelphia and has even moved up the line-up at times not looking totally out of place. His individual shots per 60 led the Flyers last year. His agitating play will be missed, but I’m glad to be rid of his reputation off the ice.

Line 4

Matt Read – Jori Lehtera – Oscar Lindblom

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Matt Read actually had a very promising start to this past season. He looked like the Read of years past scoring 5 of his 10 total goals last year in the first 5 games. He’ll probably never score 20 goals again, but he’s quite adept at pushing the play in the right direction. Coming out on top in terms of possession metrics is basically all you can ask of a depth guy, and Read does just that. He’s a solid defensive depth wing.

The basics on Jori Lehtera. He’s exiting his prime years. He’s been a +39 in goals for/against at Even Strength in his 3 year NHL career. He’s had sheltered offensive zone starts; 38% offensive vs. 28% defensive. That sounds pretty good, but this past year Lehtera wasn’t as good as those numbers suggest. Which brings me back to the first point; he’s exiting his prime years. In 2016-17 Lehtera was a -4 at Even Strength, and had even more offensively slanted zone starts (43% vs. 23%). That’s a good indicator he’s in decline, but it looks like Philly are stuck with him.

It’s kind of crazy to push a 20-year-old who just came 4th in the Swedish League scoring race all the way to the 4th line. There really isn’t a spot for Oscar in the top-9, not right away that is. As the season moves along and Lindblom proves he can play at the NHL level he could easily jump into the top-6. For now Lindblom is a more complete player than say, Nolan Patrick, and that would lend itself to him being used in a two-way role with Lehtera and Read.

I will say this.. if Lindblom is shuffled to Lehigh Valley at the start of the season it will be terrible management. I’d rather see a veteran demoted even if that vet has to pass through waivers (Read/Raffl). The sad thing is the Flyers probably won’t do that. Lindblom in Lehigh Valley could easily happen. I’d much rather see the Flyers move towards a ‘skill in the bottom 6’ mindset that’s slowly taking hold across the league.

Back to Moscow: 25-year-old Roman Lyubimov came to the organization as a good bottom-6 checking forward. He had the best penalty killing results of any forward, was better offensively than Bellemare/Vandevelde, and was generally a decent player. Kind of a shame he’s leaving because I would have liked a larger sample of his work. Overall he’s replaceable and the Flyers have so many depth forwards right now.

Extras

Raffl – Laughton – Leier – Vecchione

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Stats via Puckalytics.com, and NHL.com

Michael Raffl has proven he’s an excellent band-aid type player. He has the skill to play in the top-6 if needed, and contributes solid possession numbers (similar to Weise) no matter where he’s playing. At even strength he was 2nd to only Couturier in goals scored per 60 mins played. In total his 8 – 5v5 goals trailed only Couturier, Simmonds and Filppula.

No idea why Vegas didn’t select Raffl.. having him outside the top-12 is craziness to me, but I don’t know where he fits! Maybe he takes Weise’s place? Maybe Lehtera can’t play, Patrick moves to C on L3, Filppula moves to L4, and Raffl takes a Wing? Anyway.. Raffl, or Weise, or Read would be as solid as 13th forwards will come in the NHL.

As I said, it’s entirely possible Lehtera flames out.. Laughton moving to the middle of Line 4 would also seem a logical flip. The fact that the Flyers protected Scott had a lot of people scratching their heads. Maybe they plan on him being the new Bellemare? Laughton’s played 104 games in his NHL career with limited offensive impact, and good defensive work. The Flyers have scored 33 times with him on the ice, and allowed 34 goals. That’s just fine for a checking line player. If he can continue along at that sort of pace he’ll be a better checking forward than Bellemare.

Vecchione and Leier were tendered their qualifying offers. Vecchione has signed his, and so far no news on Leier, but expect him to sign. Possible either make the team as spare forwards, more likely they’ll be in Lehigh Valley of the AHL. Vecchione is a wildcard, he may be better than Laughton/Leier already, but he’ll have to prove it first.

Leier’s 16 game career to this point has been pretty forgettable offensively (worst of any Flyer while on the ice in GF60), but his defensive work has been great (best GA60). He’d be worth a look as a depth forward if there weren’t so many other options. For what it’s worth he’s improved in each of his AHL seasons; 0.42 points/game, 0.69 points/game, 0.77 points/game. Good progress!

Inexplicable Usage: Chris Vandevelde (especially when partnered with Bellemare) was one of Hakstol’s favourites. Seeing him hit the ice instead of guys like Read, Raffl, Weise, Cousins, or Lyubimov was infuriating. The Flyers will be a better team without him.